1. You may have heard recently that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, issued a dire report indicating that the security situation in Afghanistan is certain to deteriorate without the infusion of thousands more U.S. and NATO troops. The report makes clear how much the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated already (conditions which have prompted McChrystal to consolidate American forces in more populous areas) and that, combined with the sagging legitimacy of the Karzai government in the wake of fraudulent elections, apparently has the Obama administration considering a widespread shift in strategy:
Mr. Obama met in the Situation Room with his top advisers on Sept. 13 to begin chewing over the problem, said officials involved in the debate. Among those on hand were Mr. Biden; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; James L. Jones, the national security adviser; and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
They reached no consensus, so three or four more such meetings are being scheduled. “There are a lot of competing views,” said one official who, like others in this article, requested anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.
Among the alternatives being presented to Mr. Obama is Mr. Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.
The Americans would accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support as they took the lead against the Taliban. But the emphasis would shift to Pakistan. Mr. Biden has often said that the United States spends something like $30 in Afghanistan for every $1 in Pakistan, even though in his view the main threat to American national security interests is in Pakistan.
Of course we've been wondering since earlier this year if a shift in Afghanistan is warranted, though liberals remain divided on the issue (the opinion of conservatives is typical, thoughtless and so pointless to examine.) Is such a shift around the corner? We'll see.
2. The Obama administration is considering limiting use of the State Secrets privilege:
The new policy, which could be announced as early as Wednesday, would require approval by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. if military or espionage agencies wanted to assert the privilege to withhold classified evidence sought in court or to ask a judge to dismiss a lawsuit at its onset.
“The department is adopting these policies and procedures to strengthen public confidence that the U.S. government will invoke the privilege in court only when genuine and significant harm to national defense or foreign relations is at stake and only to the extent necessary to safeguard those interests,” says a draft of a memorandum from Mr. Holder laying out the policy and obtained by The New York Times.
Leading Democratic lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have filed bills that would restrict how the privilege could be used. The Obama administration has not taken a position on those bills, but the new policy, which is intended to rein in use of the privilege by erecting greater internal checks and balances against abuse, could blunt momentum in Congress to pass legislation.
The bills would encourage courts to find a way for lawsuits to continue, even if particular documents or information must be withheld. They would also require judges to take a more searching look at executive branch claims that certain evidence cannot be used in court because its disclosure would result in a “significant harm” to national security.
That requirement would be tougher than the current legal standard, which comes from a 1953 Supreme Court decision approving the withholding of information whenever there is “reasonable danger” of exposing information that should not be divulged for national security reasons.
The real problem of course is that since that 1953 decision, courts have held that it's the government, not a federal judge, who decides whether there exists a "reasonable danger" of exposing delicate national security information. This new policy doesn't change that, so I'm not entirely sure how useful it will be. Glenn Greenwald has hammered the Obama administration on this and other national security policies; I expect him to have quite a bit to say about this announcement.
3. And look who's coming around now:
Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, two of the nation’s biggest banks, announced plans on Tuesday to drastically overhaul their debit card programs by lowering or eliminating fees, changing the way they credit transactions and allowing customers to opt out of overdraft protection.
The moves come as lawmakers and regulators in Washington push proposals to reform what critics say are excessive charges of which consumers are unaware. The penalties, known as overdraft fees, bring the banking industry tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually.
Bank of America said it would allow current customers to turn off the ability to spend when their account hits zero, starting Oct. 19. Next June, the bank plans to limit the number of times each year that current customers can overdraw their accounts when using a debit card at a store. It will let new customers choose whether they want overdraft protection when they are opening their account.
Chase plans to eliminate by the first quarter of next year a common industry practice that enraged many consumers. Instead of lumping a day’s worth of debit card and A.T.M. transactions together and then processing the highest amounts first — a practice that has caused large numbers of consumers to overdraw more quickly and pay more fees — it will credit the transactions chronologically. Chase also plans to allow customers to opt out of overdraft coverage.
I'm sure this has absolutely nothing to do with the extremely bad press these banks have gotten as of late, or the fact that Congress is chomping at the bit to regulate them. In all seriousness though, I'm sure lobbyists for the banks are right now pointing out to members of Congress how legislation is now completely unnecessary because the Banks are taking steps to regulate themselves. To which I say, screw that, pass the legislation.